The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain , better known as the Parekh Report, was published in the autumn of 2000.footnote1 It was the work of a 23-strong Commission set up by the Runnymede Trust under the chairmanship of the political theorist Bhikhu Parekh, recently retired from his chair at the University of Hull and elevated to the House of Lords as a working Labour peer. In his Preface, Parekh writes of his fellow commissioners that ‘the Report is entirely their creation, and I can only hope that the understandable but regrettable tendency to identify a report with a commission’s chair will be studiously resisted’. Different chapters, his account suggests, were prepared by different members of the commission, and then revised in the light of discussion. At the same time, Parekh’s sweeping disclaimer of any creative role in its preparation lacks plausibility. Much of Part One of the Report, around a third of the book, is hard-core political theory and, making allowances for simplification and abridgement, its content corresponds closely to Parekh’s own Rethinking Multiculturalism, published a few months before.footnote2

A central theme in Rethinking Multiculturalism is the inadequacy of standard liberal principles (as embodied, for example, in international human rights documents) in the face of cultural diversity. Not only individuals but also communities need to have rights, Parekh argues. This idea plays a role in Part One of the Report, and occasionally surfaces later, as in the suggestion (in another section which, from internal evidence, was most likely written by Parekh) that the government should declare Britain to be a multicultural society. The advantages of this are said to include encouraging organizations ‘to devise policies that promote diversity as well as equality’; and ‘to stress that the country is both a community of citizens and a community of communities, both a liberal and a plural society’.footnote3 (This catchphrase, ‘a community of communities’, borrowed from the English pluralists of the early twentieth century, crops up frequently in both Rethinking Multiculturalism and the Report.) Britain is undoubtedly a multicultural society—and has been since neolithic times—but it does not follow from this fact that there is any obligation on organizations to promote diversity, any more than there is an obligation on them to promote uniformity. If equal treatment is understood to include appropriate acknowledgement of cultural differences (a point to which I shall return), the amount of diversity that comes about as a result of the choices people make will be the right amount. Similarly, to say that Britain ‘is both a liberal and a plural society’ is to invoke the theoretical basis underlying special rights for groups. Pluralism, interpreted in this way, cannot simply be added to liberalism but is fundamentally in conflict with it, as Parekh himself emphasizes in Rethinking Multiculturalism. Yet this is, again, quite detachable from the fact that Britain is a multicultural society.

It is striking, however, how little the recommendations in the substantive part of the Report require any departure from minimal liberal premises to support them. Most of them, indeed, rest on a very narrow basis: the principle of non-discrimination and the corresponding (weak) principle of equal opportunity. In other words, all we have to concede to sustain these proposals is that people who are similarly circumstanced in all respects except morally irrelevant ones, such as membership of an ethnic group, should not be treated differently by the police, have different employment opportunities, and so on. This principle of non-discrimination is less likely to be flatly rejected in contemporary Western societies than to be relegated to the status of a non-enforceable ideal. Thus, it may be said that it would be nice if the police were equally civil to all citizens, followed up all crimes with equal vigour, and so on, but that any attempt to enforce such norms is liable to ‘undermine morale’ and reduce overall police efficiency. Similarly, it may be said that, while employers should be encouraged to adopt codes of good practice for recruitment, subjecting them to potential legal penalties or loss of government contracts on the basis of the actual results of their recruitment decisions would be excessively burdensome and intrusive.

The Parekh Report is animated by the conviction that discrimination, defined by outcomes rather than intentions, is pervasive in all sectors of Britain’s society, economy and polity, and that it would be worth devoting a lot of resources and upsetting a lot of established ways of doing business to get rid of it. I am not saying that the entire Report can be reduced, in practical terms, to the claim that the future of multi-ethnic Britain would be pretty good if discrimination were rooted out; we would, however, encompass a remarkably large part of it by adding the often-made point that discrimination does not exist in a vacuum, so that its eradication can never be secure as long as the attitudes that support it continue to exist. Yet even confining ourselves to the principle of non-discrimination, we shall find very little in the chapters on the police, on criminal justice, on health and welfare, employment, immigration and asylum, that depends on any normative premise beyond this. Furthermore, the chapter on ‘Religion and Belief’, which might be expected to follow up Parekh-style ideas about the inability of standard liberal rights to accommodate the demands of religious communities qua communities, does none of this, but actually devotes almost all its space to the case for extending anti-discrimination legislation to cover religion. Of course, this requires taking account of cultural diversity, in as far as indirect religious discrimination consists of making demands (as a condition of employment, for example) that are disproportionately burdensome to some people in virtue of their religious beliefs or norms, and cannot be justified as necessary for the conduct of the business, school, public authority or whatever. But this is simply a necessary condition of implementing the principle of non-discrimination, and does not in any way conflict with the liberal principle of equal treatment that underlies anti-discrimination measures.footnote4

Not surprisingly, the chapters on education and the arts, media and sport have things to say that cannot be subsumed under the principle of non-discrimination, though they have a good deal to say about that as well. Some of these ideas are better than others—the section on the arts, for example, seems to me to rest too heavily on the assumption that members of ethnic minorities can enjoy only ‘their’ cultural products—but they do not involve any breach of basic liberal principles. They are largely addressed to the corollary of anti-discrimination: the need to overcome misconceptions and prejudices.

There are, indeed, points at which the recommendations put forward in the Report would appear to conflict with liberal individualist principles; however, to the extent that they do, it is not at all apparent how they could be supported in any other reasonable way. I express myself a bit vaguely here, because the authors of the substantive chapters tend to assume that the normative premises underlying their proposals are too obvious to need stating—a confidence that is not always well placed. Thus, for example, ‘spatial distribution’ is put forward as a reason for rejecting ‘colour-blind and culture-blind’ approaches to poverty, because ‘black, Asian and Irish people will not, of course, benefit from measures that target areas where they do not live.’footnote5 Since this is a tautology, its truth is undeniable. But so what? If people concentrated in ethnic-minority areas and equally poor as those elsewhere were being left out of anti-poverty measures, there would obviously be an objection. But the objection would not then be that the policy failed to take account of ethnicity—rather, that it fell foul of the anti-discrimination principle, by treating members of ethnic minorities less well than others similarly situated in this respect.

To the extent that anti-poverty measures are effective, there is nothing wrong with the idea (criticized in the Report) that, in so far as members of ethnic minorities suffer from poverty, ‘they will automatically, and indeed by definition, benefit from anti-poverty measures’.footnote6 No doubt, as the Report says, ‘poverty affects certain communities disproportionately’. But the implication that should be drawn is simply that those communities will benefit disproportionately (but fairly) from equally effective anti-poverty measures. None of this impugns the validity of the point, also made, that the same measures may be differentially effective. (For example, improving job qualifications will have only limited value in improving employment among those subject to job discrimination.) But this is simply another application of the idea that (as with the prohibition of discrimination on religious grounds) equal treatment has to take context into account. It does not require any departure from the principle that the eradication of poverty has equally high priority regardless of the ethnic identity of those who suffer from it.